It took seven days and 48 hours, but finally the third United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance came to some sort of consensus. By the time the conference organizers announced an “agreement” on the afternoon of Saturday 8 September 2001, most of the representatives of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had left South Africa for home tired, frustrated and disappointed. What had begun as the first global gathering of hope of the twenty-first century had turned into a fiasco. In the end not only did the credibility of the United Nations lie in tatters, the hypocrisy of western democracies (led by the US and Israel) exposed, but the very understanding of human rights and human dignity had been ridiculed.
The story of the anti-racism conference in South Africa is not a story of high-profile boycotts or insurmountable obstacles. These are the staple diet of all such gatherings: the US has boycotted all previous UN conferences on racism. Israel did not, but Zionism had not made it to the agenda of the conferences in 1978 and 1983.
The United States used political issues such as “zionism equals racism” and compensation for slavery to belittle and discredit the conference, but behind the faÁade lay a much larger problem. The US had warned NGOs and other delegates that the WCAR must not lead to new programmess to combat racism, new legal standards, any additional money to fund anti-racism efforts, or any other significant follow-up. These “four no’s”, Washington warned, would effectively “squander the opportunity offered by the conference”. The determination of the NGOs not to give in to the US diktat, which would have turned the conference into a useless talkshop, made Washington’s withdrawal inevitable.
But Washington and Tel Aviv were not the only governments made nervous by the WCAR. Because racism is almost universal, the issue is a delicate matter for most governments. Wisely, some governments tried not to shy away from a frank discussion of their domestic tensions in the preparatory process. Many Latin American countries, for instance, have (at least as far as WCAR is concerned) acknowledged the problems faced by their indigenous peoples, and some even seemed to welcome the unprecedented mobilizations of Afro-Latinos. At the opposite extreme is India, which insisted that the issue of caste discrimination be kept out of the meeting’s final documents, despite an equally unprecedented international mobilization round that issue. More than 250 million people worldwide suffer under a “hidden apartheid” of segregation, modern-day slavery, and other extreme forms of discrimination because they were born into a marginalized caste. Caste discrimination has been a shameful reality for too long in “secular India,” but the emerging global movement, which was also present at the NGO Forum in Durban, will not let it be an “open secret” any longer.
The NGO Forum exposed the fact that new forms of racism have emerged recently. Islamophobia, the irrational hatred of Islam and persecution of Muslims, is one form of ‘racism’ that is spreading fast, particularly in Europe. A British Muslim delegate pointed out that an Islamophobic comment, made recently by the leader of the British National Front on BBC television, raised hardly an eyebrow from either the relevant government departments or the country’s substantial race-relations industry.
Africans have often been the victims of racism, but some African governments can also be its perpetrators. The Ivory Coast is now scene of the kind of intolerance and bigotry that the WCAR was intended to address. A report released on the eve of the WCAR by Human Rights Watch documents how leading government officials in Ivory Coast have encouraged a violent xenophobia that is threatening to destabilize the country. The overwhelming majority of victims in the recent violence come from the largely Muslim north of the country, or are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants to Ivory Coast.
Beside the Palestinian issue, which essentially aimed at exposing the racist core of zionism, the other much-maligned issue that emerged from the conference was the matter of seeking apologies and reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Campaigners called for truth commissions to examine how a government’s past racist practices contribute to contemporary deprivation, and to propose methods of redress. A primary purpose of reparations would be to address the social and economic foundations of today’s victims’ continuing marginalization by means such as investment in education, housing, health care and job-training. It is not enough simply to deplore slavery, reasoned the campaigners; the conference should also recognize that those governments which profited from slavery have an obligation to today’s victims.
Despite desperate efforts by Western countries the WCAR did, in the end, thanks mostly to ‘people power’, achieve some results. They may not be a great deal but, considering the opposition, they are laudable. The final declaration offers something to the refugee in Europe who is beaten up simply because he or she is a “foreigner”, to the scavenger in India whose low caste prevents him from rising in life, to the Tibetan who cannot get a job in Lhasa because of discrimination, to the Palestinian who suffers daily humiliation under Israeli occupation, to British Muslims who have no law to protect them from religious discrimination, and to the African-American child who is three times as likely to live in poverty as her white counterpart.
The challenge now, however, is to achieve a genuine follow-up to the commitments made in the final declaration. When we look back at the Rio conference in 1992, we see a watershed in the global effort to protect the environment. Vienna in 1993 laid the groundwork for the creation of the High Commission for Human Rights. Cairo in 1994 affirmed that women’s reproductive health was a human rights matter. The 1995 Beijing conference led many countries to adopt action plans to improve the status of women.
The question now is whether Durban will be remembered as a milestone in the global fight against racism or as a meaningless talkfest.